Housing, but no bling bling, at Still We Rise march

By David H. Ellis

Despite lacking the star power of singer Alicia Keys and hip hop mogul Russell Simmons, protestors in Monday’s “Still We Rise” march still delivered a rousing plea to visiting G.O.P. leaders on incendiary issues such as affordable housing, AIDS and welfare reform.

Convening at Union Sq. before marching west in hot and humid weather before rallying at a stage just south of Madison Sq. Garden, over 50 organizations under the umbrella group of Still We Rise attempted to grab the attention of the country’s representatives.

“We are here on the streets today and we will be out here tomorrow, next week, next month and next year because we are angry that the Republican National Convention has chosen to claim victory in our city,” said Sheila Stowell, a member of Racial Justice 911 and the Still We Rise People’s Assembly from the podium on Eighth Ave., just four blocks south of the Garden. “New York City is the site of their victory but of their shame and we are here to hold them accountable.”

Hoisting various banners such as “Free Palestine!” and chanting battle cries such as “What do we want? Housing!” marchers funneled along 15th St., clogging sidewalks before heading north towards M.S.G., at one point stretching from Eighth Ave. to Union Sq. Although flanked by police officers carrying riot helmets and plastic handcuffs, the nearly 50,000 people in attendance estimated by protest organizers remained relatively peaceful during the four-hour event that started at noon and ended shortly after 4 p.m.

“It far exceed our expectations since it was the middle of a Monday on a workday and many of the marchers were working people,” said Jennifer Flynn, a spokesperson for the event and co-director of NYC AIDS Housing Network, a lead organization in the Still We Rise coalition. “I’m pretty pleased with people who turned out, how they behaved and the energy of the march.”

Protest planners, who applied for a permit for the march in November 2003, initially expected members of the Hip Hop Summit Action Network such as Simmons and P. Diddy to participate. Due to security concerns and expensive insurance policies, which were necessary for the celebrities to appear, H.H.S.A.N. dropped out last week. Although rap veteran Chuck D from Public Enemy and musician and political activist Michael Franti surfaced during the rally that included nearly two dozen speakers, organizers believed that their message, which was intended for both political parties, was probably more effective without the overwhelming celebrity appearances.

“If there was this massive celebrity presence it would have been ‘Russell Simmons shows up’ and I think the message would have been further diluted,” said Flynn, speaking later. “The celebrities of the day are the people affected by these issues.”

While some organizations strolled together along Eighth Ave., other groups such as the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, a local 30-piece marching band, performed protest songs. Some individuals such as Tom Tucker were simply satisfied with just quietly marching, holding a “Smush Bush” flyswatter in his hand.

“I’m not somebody who likes to protest, but after the march on Sunday and how successful they were, I felt like I had to,” said Tucker, a math professor and a Brooklyn resident referring to the United for Peace and Justice protest. “I felt I had to do anything to help defeat Bush.”

Despite an overall anti-Bush sentiment among the crowd, some participants such as Keith Koski, a Texas architect and a former East and West Village resident, were skeptical that Democratic candidate John Kerry could provide the necessary catalyst for changes in education, civil liberties and the economy.

“ ‘Anybody but Bush’ is our main message,” said Koski, a member with the group Radical Texas Bloc, who was joined in his trip to Manhattan with approximately 40 other Texas residents. “We’re for greater change than Kerry can provide but the main thing is we want to get Bush out of there.”

Gary Lopez, a West Village resident, sat on the steps in front of his apartment on 15th St. near Seventh Ave. as demonstrators passed by. While he did not participate, the message of the march resonated with him.

“I was excited it was coming down the street,” he said. “I’m in support of what they’re about; we want to get Bush out of there.”